The Daily Heller: A Whirling Dervish of Symbolism

Posted inThe Daily Heller

In 1971, Joe and Elinor Selame, proprietors of Selame Design Associates in Newton, MA, authored an enticing visual book/essay with a message. It is arguably a lost data viz masterpiece.

In the short introductory text of So We Spin (creation and graphics by Joe, and verse by Elinor), Joe poses a challenge: “Are You a Wheel or a Cog?”

The text reads, in part: “Two years ago I set out to prove that the simplest and most direct form of communication is the symbol. Stripped of all nonessential elements, it is the graphic expression of concept and identity. Through a few lines I could symbolize the differences in people and their roles in society. At the beginning, this private challenge seemed fairly easy to resolve.”

The two eyeballs are lenticular lenses that move suggestively back and forth.

I was surprised to find this volume in an overflow stack of books that I haven’t looked through in decades. Having never heard Selame’s name, I hopped on a search engine to find that the first hit—one of only a few citations—was Selame’s 2011 New York Times obituary, citing as accomplishments brandmarks for major American companies, including Apple Bank; CVS (he simplified the original name, “Consumer Value Stores,” to the better-known initials); the red, yellow and green traffic signal of Stop and Shop; and the Goodwill Industries face logo. But what surprised me most is that, well, I wrote the obituary … and completely forgot I had done so.

Aside from his triumphs as identity designer and strategist (alongside his wife, who died in 1977), So We Spin is something of a missing link in the world of information graphics that exhibits a commitment to social commentary. It is a tale relevant today, addressing the status of discrimination and inequality, and is a statement about the inevitability of social revolution, a fairly radical idea for a brand strategist then or now.

The story about economic and political power in American is best explained in the following continuation of Selame’s introduction: “I found that characters such as those who have (Gots) create those who want (Antigots) and those who need (Nogots). Machine-oriented Teknos find their antithesis in human-oriented Hipnos, and so on. The symbolic family of Man grew larger and larger. As patterns of the interrelationships of the various characters began to evolve, questions arose. Is there a natural balance of people in society? Does society work better with more or less certain types of characters? What effect does the average man (Middie) have upon sociological conditions, and vice versa? Can these symbols be used to project societies at work?”

Without mentioning the symbol pioneers Otto Neurath and Rudolf Modley, Selame references this important sociopictorial trend in data visualization.

“This book,” he concludes, “will help you to identify your role within a complex society, and expose the importance (or irrelevance) of the part you play. And so we spin …”

The book is “written” with graphic shorthand that is as current (and modern) today as it was over 50 years ago. (If you enlarge the individual images, the text may even surprise you.) I am still unsure where Selame Design Associates (which in 1995 was renamed BrandEquity) fits into the history of brand theory and practice, but it is more than clear that the Selames’ contribution was not insignificant.